Training & Learning

McKinsey and the Future of Learning: The Era of “Capability-Led Transformation”

An interview with Matthew Smith, McKinsey’s Chief Learning Officer on the Future of Learning.

The rapid pace of change is a challenge for most companies. New regulations, global competition, economic shifts, and shorter innovation cycles can make it tough to stay ahead. For McKinsey & Company, the expectation is even greater as knowledge lies at the very heart of their business model. Other companies rely on McKinsey’s 17,000 consultants and 2,000 research and information professionals to help them navigate these changes.

That means McKinsey talent needs to be able to solve increasingly complex challenges. We sat down with Matthew Smith, McKinsey’s Chief Learning Officer, to understand how the Future of Work has been reshaping learning strategies in one of the world’s most respected consulting firms.

Learning has been a critical strategic enabler of the firm’s success over time. It is one of our largest investments as a firm.

“Learning has been a critical strategic enabler of the firm’s success over time. It is one of our largest investments as a firm.”

Matthew, you joined McKinsey almost 15 years ago. In what ways is learning at McKinsey different today than it was then?

In 2005, when I joined the firm, I received a two-page booklet that listed all the learning programs we had, from analyst to senior partner. I look back on that now and I laugh a little bit. It was a simpler world that we lived in. You could take someone offsite for five days once every couple of years, usually as they change roles, and you could trust that the rest would happen through apprenticeship and on-the-job coaching.

Fast forward to 2019. We have many more truly blended learning experiences that link together traditional in-person learning and digitally-enabled experiences, like simulations that virtually bring cohorts together to share issues while providing people with exercises to practice during their day-to-day over the course of the week. We knit those things together, typically into nine to twelve-month journeys, that accelerate our people in their role.

What has driven these learning changes at McKinsey?

Learning had to transform in order to meet the demands of a couple of broader changes.

First, the pace of change that people have to adapt to is accelerating. The shelf-life of knowledge is going down while the amount of new things you have to learn and understand is going up. It means we have to get much smarter about how we build the capabilities.

The second thing is McKinsey itself has transformed dramatically over the last few years. As recently as 2012, 40% of the work that we do now didn’t even exist within the firm. Massive digital transformation and the challenges of digital-built businesses have required new ways of working with clients.

We’ve brought in many colleagues who are very different than the types of people we brought in before, including data scientists, data engineers, and coders – who are doing deep technology enablement work. Developing those people is quite a bit different than our traditional consultants – and leading them can be too. Managers must learn how to make the most out of large diverse teams, where people have unique skills and very different approaches to how they solve problems.

Both changes have had an impact on how learning happens at McKinsey. Our dual mission is to help our clients achieve distinctive, lasting, and substantial improvements in their performance, and to build a great firm that attracts, develops, excites, and retains exceptional people in everything we do. We try to link back to the mission and I think that in learning we help drive and enable both parts of that mission.

One of our taglines is: “Never stop learning”. Even if you’re a senior partner who’s been here for 30 years, you still have an incredible amount you can grow.

“One of our taglines is: 'Never stop learning.' Even if you’re a senior partner who’s been here for 30 years, you still have an incredible amount you can grow."

How does McKinsey adapt to those challenges? Can you still rely on traditional corporate training resources, or are you fostering new ways of training people?

Definitely the latter. Formal learning used to happen entirely outside of the flow of work: we would take people offsite for week-long training programs, and that is where learning would happen. These sorts of programs still have an important place, but we are now getting learning much more into alignment with all the other ways that we develop people at the firm and into the flow of their work.

For example, when a consultant gets staffed on a project, he or she now gets a tailored list of short digital learning courses that they should do before they start this new project. We’re saying “here are the three courses you should take. It’ll take you 90 minutes and you’ll be able to hit the ground running much better on Monday”. It is all part of embedding the mindset of being a continuous learner, of taking charge of your own development, of being aware of all the tools that we have to offer.

Has continuous learning always been a core part of the culture at McKinsey?

This continuous learning mindset is certainly a mantra that we have. One of our taglines is: “Never stop learning”. Even if you’re a senior partner who’s been here for thirty years, you still have an incredible amount you can learn and grow, especially given the context that we talked about earlier.

But a continuous learning mindset is only one of the three legs of the stool. Because if you’re going to tell people that they have to be lifelong learners, you’ve got to arm them with the skills and the opportunities that are going to enable them. So first, you need the mindset of a lifelong learner. Second, you have to have access to the right opportunities to learn things that are relevant for you in the moment you need them and accessible to you. And then you need skills around how to be an effective learner to get the most impact out of the experience.

Those three pieces together make an ecosystem that really supports continuous learning for our people, and also enables what we call with our clients a “capability-led transformation” of organizations. As industries get disrupted and change, and strategies have a shorter half-life, talent is the ultimate source of competitive advantage.

That is why learning and development is going to be an increasingly strategic function in most organizations over the next five to ten years. My hope is that we go away from learning and development functions just being viewed as the people who execute training programs to being seen as a truly strategic function of the company.

As industries get disrupted and change, and strategies have a shorter half-life, talent is the ultimate source of competitive advantage.

“As industries get disrupted and change, and strategies have a shorter half-life, talent is the ultimate source of competitive advantage.”

Who do you think should take responsibility for this transformation? Is it down to L&D professionals, or should CEOs embrace it too?

The easy answer is both. I think the answer I believe more strongly is that it has to come from the top of the organization, from the CEO specifically. CEOs need to step up and take a much larger role in putting talent at the center of the strategic agenda for their leadership team and for their boards.

Learning and development surely needs to step up to the challenge. We need to make sure that we’re thinking of our role not just as a shared service function or service provider. That’s not enough. We need to be strategic ourselves in our outlook. We need to be networked across the organizations we’re in. We need to have an in-depth understanding of our strategy, and we need to marry that with the best and latest science and techniques around how to develop people.

How should Chief Learning Officers approach the transition to capability-led learning?

First, CLOs need to make sure they see their role not just as bringing an understanding of learning, but as the ability to strategically solve problems. How do you work with colleagues across the company whether it’s business units or different departments to fully understand what is actually needed in terms of capabilities?

The other pillar is about a more fully integrated view of how people develop. I like to see an orientation which starts with the learner, starts with the person who we need to develop, and thinks about how that person actually develops. What are all the different touchpoints that person has that can help them develop on the job, through apprenticeship, through mentors, through feedback processes, through coaching? And how can we integrate that all together more seamlessly so that the person better accelerates down whatever development path he or she is on?

Learning can’t be a silo off to the side anymore. It needs to be fully integrated with the rest of H.R. disciplines like talent or performance management, and professional development. In order to do this, CLOs need to get out and talk to people. Learning professionals need to spend time out there, talking to colleagues from all business units, all regions, across the field. It gives you much richer information about what’s happening. It also creates relationships through which you can spark new ways of thinking about how to get something done in the organization.

What would be your top piece of advice to a young CLO or a young L&D professional starting out his or her career?

I would first encourage that person to think about what would excite them over time and what kind of future they could imagine for themselves. People sometimes are quick to keep learning professionals in a box and think they’re sort of only one-track, such as “I’m an instructional designer, so then I’m going to do that and then I’m going to be a senior designer and then I’m going to be more of a curriculum architect”.

I actually think most people come into L&D because they love helping others. And so maybe the right path for the best designer is actually to then pivot into coaching or to pivot into a strategic talent role. So I encourage people to start with what excites you. Before you get locked in on a path, think about where you want to go.

The second piece of advice I would give to L&D professionals would be: “Make sure you get out of your silo.” Spend time learning from others in your organization and outside your organization. Build those networks, meet other people. Don’t expect anything to come from it overnight but you’re starting to build something for the future that’s going to pay dividends over time.

The third and last piece of advice might sound obvious but I do think it’s important: “Keep a continuous learning mindset”. Invest in yourself. Truly and fully embrace that mindset. I’m going to keep learning something every day. I’m going to become a better and better learner over time so I grow more and more. I think if you do those things, you’re going to be well set up for success.

About Matthew Smith

Matt Smith is a Partner in the Paris Office of McKinsey & Company. He currently serves as the firm’s Chief Learning Officer, responsible for learning and development strategy and execution for more than 30,000 colleagues globally.

Matt has published several articles on organizational and talent topics, including “How Companies Are Using Simulations, Competitions, and Analytics to Hire” (Harvard Busines Review, 2016), “The Hidden Value of Organizational Health” (McKinsey Quarterly, 2014), “Fit-for-Purpose Go-to-Market Model (lead article in the book Finding the Edge, 2012), and “Beyond Hiring: An Integrated Approach to Talent Management” (McKinsey on Government, 2011). He was the research director for the book Talent Wins (Charan, Barton, and Carey, 2018). Matt is a member of The Conference Board EMEA Learning and Development Council, the Consortium for Advancing Adult Learning and Development, and the Enterprise Learning
Council. Matt serves as Master Faculty for McKinsey’s learning programs, and previously was senior faculty for McKinsey’s “Change Leaders Forum” program where he brought his research and experience in change management to senior executives across sectors. He has taught courses on talent management and learning and development at Cornell University in the U.S. and Tsinghua University in China.

Matt has a B.A. degree from Harvard University and a Master of Professional Services degree in Human Resource Management from Cornell University. He lives in Paris, France with his wife Lauren and two sons, Nate (9) and Aaron (4).

About McKinsey & Company

McKinsey & Company is a global management consulting firm, deeply committed to helping institutions in the private, public, and social sectors achieve lasting success. For more than 90 years, their primary objective has been to serve as their clients’ most trusted external advisor. With consultants in 133 cities in 66 countries, across industries and functions, they bring unparalleled expertise to clients anywhere in the world. They work closely with teams at all levels of an organization to shape winning strategies, mobilize for change, build capabilities, and drive successful execution.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this interview is for general information purposes only. Neither Matthew Smith, nor McKinsey or any affiliated brand endorse 360Learning’s products, views or opinions.